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Monday, January 9, 2012

Twins 2013 Pitching Rotation: Spots up for Grabs

I wrote a post last week that advocated signing Francisco Liriano to some sort of extension now -- buying low, essentially. Most of the comments that I received expressed agreement with the general idea of buying low on Liriano, if you could ($6-8 million a year, 2-3 years, and an incentive-laden deal was probably the general consensus), but also expressed the probability that Liriano and his agent would likely prefer to bank on Liriano having a better 2012 and testing out free agent market. That post, and the comments, got me thinking about the Twins' rotation for the 2013 season. Not that I'm at all comfortable with what we have going into 2012, but it's basically settled at this point that it's going to be Pavano, Liriano, Baker, Blackburn and Marquis. You can complain about it all you want, and I'll enjoy reading the complaints and agreeing with you, but it seems very unlikely that Terry Ryan will go after another free agent starter.

If that group is really the 2012 starting rotation, the 2013 rotation could be, and probably will be, quite different. Liriano, unless extended, will become a free agent after this upcoming season. If he pitches well (say, wins 15 games and has an ERA under 4.00), there will be some team, somewhere, that is willing to overpay for a wild, inconsistent lefty that occasionally is the best pitcher in the game and has thrown a no-hitter. My guess is that, if Liriano is successful in 2012, it will be his last season in Minnesota.

The Twins hold a $9.25 million club option for righty Scott Baker for the 2013 season. Baker is another confusing case. On the one hand, he seems very close to a #2 starter, and on the other hand, he has a propensity for giving up home runs and a history of injuries that have put him on the disabled list several times. If the Twins are lucky enough to get a full season of a healthy, productive Baker, I expect that they'll probably pick up that option, especially if they believe they are unlikely to hold on to Liriano long-term. But still, it's worth noting that Baker could become a free agent after the 2012 season if the Twins fail to pick up his option, so his future as a Twin is uncertain.

There is probably more certainty with the next few guys on this list, Nick Blackburn, Carl Pavano and Jason Marquis. I'll get Blackburn out of the way first, because the fact is that his contract, which runs through 2013 (with an $8 million club option for 2014), is not movable. Due to relatively serious injuries, and long periods of ineffective pitching, the Twins are stuck with Blackburn for the next couple seasons. The Twins are paying Carl Pavano $8.5 million in 2012, in the last year of a 2-year contract. On opening day 2013, Pavano would be 37. It's certainly possible that the Twins would try to keep Pavano for another year if he has a decent 2012 (I imagine the Twins' press release for that contract would contain the words "innings-eater," "veteran," and "leader" on several occasions), but it's also very possible to imagine his skill-set further deteriorating this upcoming season. And then there's Jason Marquis. I have every expectation that the 1-year, $3 million contract that he signed is viewed by the front office as a stop-gap between what the Twins have now, and what they hope to have in 2013 or 2014.

In the end, my guess is that by 2013, only 2 of the current 5 starters will be wearing Twins uniforms. I can imagine the Twins trying to keep one of either Baker or Liriano (by exercising Baker's option or extending Liriano), but not both. And we know that Nick Blackburn will be doing his thing for another couple years. Aside from that, Marquis and Pavano are aging veterans, and the Twins might be able to replace their production with younger, cheaper players.

We know that top pitching prospect Kyle Gibson is out for the 2012 season following Tommy John surgery, so who knows how fast or slow his recovery will be. I'm hopeful that he will rebound quickly. But it should be noted that there was no definite indication that he was ready for promotion to the big leagues. I'm not certain what role arm problems played in his 2011 stats, but it's worth noting that he was 3-8 with a 4.81 ERA in Rochester in 18 starts. Not exactly light-out. Liam Hendriks was a September call-up to an injury-depleted Twins team, and went 0-2 with a 6.17 ERA in 23 1/3 innings. It was encouraging that he struck out 16 while walking only 6. His promotion showed that he's definitely a top Twins prospect, and with another year of seasoning, it's easy to imagine him taking over a rotation spot in 2013. Still, though, I'm sure more time at AAA would benefit Hendriks and the Twins in the long-run. And then there are your Brian Duensings and Anthony Swarzaks. Will they make it as MLB starters, or be confined to lesser roles? My guess is that there will be at least one more opportunity for each.

In short, between aging veterans and players poised for free agency in the near future, your 2013 Twins pitching staff could only vaguely resemble its 2012 counterpart. I still hold out hope that, someday, the Twins might engage in a bidding war for an established pitcher that could become a #1 starter, but until that day comes, it's probably more prudent to take a look at the contracts, the options, and who we have in New Britain and Rochester waiting in the wings.

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